In the wake of the state of Mississippi’s April 17 flag referendum, a petition drive that seeks reparations for Southern Americans is building steam.
The League of the South has collected 10,000 signatures since April 6 as part of its effort to gain a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate on behalf of “all Southerners and their families who suffered atrocities during the [Civil] War and the years of military occupation that followed.”
Dr. Michael Hill, president of the League of the South, expects to gather over 100,000 signatures. The organization is also backing referendums and constitutional amendments in South Carolina and Georgia to restore the Confederate battle flag as a memorial for thousands of men, black and white, who died in defense of the South.
The citizens of Mississippi voted to retain the state’s historic flag that contains the emblem of the Confederate battle flag in the canton corner. The vote itself was historic. Across the South, states under pressure from the NAACP squirmed between the economic threat of boycotts and the desire of the people to preserve a revered symbol of Southern heritage. Only Mississippi chose the democratic process to resolve the question of the flag. The fact that 65 percent of voters favored the Confederate symbol meant that a significant percentage of the state’s black citizens desired to keep the flag. Political observers note that at issue in the Mississippi vote was the question of democratic self-determination: Mississippians have, in effect, rejected the national model of a politically correct vision.
In a poll conducted by the Sun Herald, of the 30 percent of blacks who voted to retain the historic flag, 27 percent accepted the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage, while 56 percent thought changing the flag would not solve racial difficulties.
Not all blacks equate slavery exclusively with the controversial flag. WorldNetDaily columnist Walter Williams writes, “It was not just Southern generals who owned slaves but northern generals owned them, as well. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s slaves had to await the 13th Amendment for freedom. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, Gen. Grant said, ‘Good help is so hard to come by these days.’”
Partisans claim that the effort to eradicate the politically incorrect Confederate battle flag has little to do with racism and a great deal to do with eradicating any vestige of doctrine of states’ rights and constitutional government. Southern defenders cite the Founding Fathers and their declaration that the Constitution was a compact among sovereign states. The case is often made that the South rose up against the tyranny of the centralizing national government that had become oppressive, particularly in the matter of tariffs. A poignant comment by Lord Acton to Robert E. Lee captures the hope many had for the restoration of liberties: “Secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of democracy. …” (Nov. 4, 1866)
Others point to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, as reported by New York City-based Journal of Commerce and his order that newspapers critical of the administration, such as the Chicago Times, be shut down as examples of the government’s imperious disregard of constitutional protections. British historian J.K. Wheare, writing 100 years after Ft. Sumter, declared, “It is startling to realize that Lincoln did not believe in the principle of the self-determination of peoples.”
Historians in agreement with the claims of the Confederacy include the taxation scholar, Charles Adams, author of “When in the Course of Human Events.” Adams, a Northerner by birth, wrote that Charles Dickens, as did so many Europeans, put his finger on the cause of the secession — It was “solely a fiscal quarrel.”
Adams finds convincing evidence: “The South [had to] pay an undue proportion of the national revenue. … Total revenue was around $107.5 million, with the South paying about $90 million and the North $17.5 million.” These punitive tariffs and the South’s resistance were a source of concern for Lincoln, who was anxious enough over the South’s threatened secession to query, “What will become of my tariff?” Federal agents were at Sumter to collect the tariffs.
The power to tax and spend still divides people along ideological lines as the current debate over the Bush tax plan demonstrates.
Resistance to a national homogenization of thought is an element in what is known as the neo-Confederate movement.
“Look,” said a Mississippian who requested anonymity, “it’s pretty simple. You have San Francisco forcing its people to pay for sex-change operations of city employees; you have Vermont sanctioning same-sex marriages; you have Oregon pushing euthanasia … the people of Mississippi are not going to be willing to accept that. The Confederacy stands for a people’s right to determine what sort of society, what sort of culture they want to build.”
Today, none deny that slavery was a part of Southern culture, but a fair appraisal, say many Southerners, acknowledges that there was far more to Southern culture, most of it a worthy heritage.
Ronald J. Rychlak, professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford wrote:
“The realization that I was trying to restrict free speech [by working on a rule to ban the flag] caused me to examine the message behind the flag, and I reached some conclusions that help me better to understand the willingness of Southerners to embrace symbols that could easily be seen as vestiges of slavery. … Whereas most northern cities have neighborhoods flavored by cultural identities, that is missing in the South. Southern cities have no European ethnic centers. There is no Greek-town, no Little Italy and no German neighborhood. … For the average Southerner, the ‘old country’ is neither Poland nor France; it is the Confederacy.”
Rychlak, an Ohioan, and author of “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” notes that the historic Mississippi flag “was adopted in 1894, not in the mid-1950s when so many states acted in defiance of federal court orders.” Hence, the symbolism for citizens is not connected with the racial strife of the civil rights movement. Southerners more typically recognize that battle flag, designed after the Civil War began, as an emblem of liberty flown against an invading army. It was never intended as a symbol of slavery, despite the meanings imputed to the flag by latter day detractors, black or white.
Elizabeth Cantrelle of Jackson, Miss., points out that the Confederate battle flag is “really St. Andrew’s Cross, you know.” St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, was crucified on an X-shaped cross. Many Civil War-era Southerners were of Scottish descent. More than one historian has pointed out that the Southern resistance was based in part on a widening gap in America’s religious understanding.
M.E. Bradford, nominated by President Ronald Reagan to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities observed, “The gospel of Science, Progress, and the Perfectibility of Man were replacing orthodox Christianity as the dominant religion of the North. Even as late as the middle of this century little had changed, prompting the late great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor to write that the difference between the North and the South was that the South ‘still believed in original sin.’”
As for the reparations sought by the League of the South, Hill admits that, while not ruling out a legal victory with payments made to heirs of victims, educating Americans about Southern political and cultural heritage is part of the mission.